The Happy Healthy Data Nerd: Using Your Personal Health Data to Support Your Wellbeing | Beth's Blog

The Happy Healthy Data Nerd: Using Your Personal Health Data to Support Your Wellbeing

Happy Healthy Nonprofit, Walking

The passion that many nonprofit data nerds feel for our work is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, that fervor helps us to keep going in the face of difficult challenges, like analyzing a huge data set. On the other hand,  we can be so driven running data visualizations at the keyboard for hours that we don’t stop to refuel or even notice we are experiencing symptoms of burnout.

In my  book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit:  Strategies for Impact without Burnout, co-authored with Aliza Sherman,  we lay out the symptoms and causes of burnout and the remedies through deliberate self-care.  And while we discuss strategies for bringing self-care into the workplace or”We-Care,” we believe it is important to begin with the individual.

The practices for self-care that we describe in the book are based on insights that we gleaned from putting the techniques into practice over the past few years. As someone who loves using data for decision-making, I found the health data generated by my Fitbit was highly actionable.  It helped me become aware of my unhealthy habits and pivoting to more healthy ones, despite what some vocal critics of fitness trackers say.

If you are responsible for working with data at your nonprofit, it probably one of many other responsibilities on your plate.   So, where can you start to make a noticeable change in the way you work and life to become more healthy?

Start with getting enough sleep.

According to the CDC, insufficient sleep is a public health problem.  Don’t fool yourself by thinking you can sleep when you are dead or that cheating yourself out of a good night’s sleep by working into the wee hours.  Sleep deprivation can lead to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and poor mental health, as well as early death.

When you don’t get enough sleep, it is like showing up to work drunk.  Would you analyze surveys after tossing several shots of Tequilas?

How much sleep does your body actually need? Is there a magic number? The amount of hours per night varies from person to person and is different based on age. The National Sleep Foundation, a champion of sleep science and sleep health for individuals, undertook a comprehensive research study to answer the question of sufficient sleep and provides evidence-based guidelines on how much sleep you really need at each age.  Drum roll, please… Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.

While there are a variety of different gadgets that you can use to track your sleep,  I use the Fitbit Charge 2.   And while the trackers can’t determine if you really are sleeping, it records the total time asleep, number of times restless or awake and total time restless based on your body movement.  So, remember it is only a guide.

I logged my sleep hours, but I also kept a journal to record my mood, ability to concentrate and personal productivity.  While these subjective measures, I discovered that my magic number of sleep hours about 7 hours and 45 minutes.

The value of this exercise was that it inspired me to rethink my routine about bedtime rituals.   I realized that I was in front of my computer monitor, trying to squeeze out one more email or just one more bar chart.  And, that staring into a monitor right before bed did not make it easy to fall asleep quickly.  In fact, the “blue light”from our computers or mobile phones is known to disrupt your melatonin levels and delay the onset of sleep.

I started with a better bedtime ritual for myself that including meditation and other calming activities which allowed me to settle into a less agitated state to get some rest. Having my sleep data in hand allowed me to set a sleep schedule and stick to it – and my Fitbit also sends me notifications of when I should start my bedtime routine. Here is some additional tips on getting a night’s sleep.

I started with working on getting enough sleep each night.  What I discovered is that once I was able to achieve my optimal number of 8.25 hours per night, I felt a lot better and had much more discipline to start to build other healthy habits – such as daily exercise.

In terms of fitness, simply adding any type of movement in your day can invigorate you and could save your life. As Nilofer Merchant points out in her popular Ted Talk, “sitting is the smoking of our generation.”   Again, my Fitbit was really useful in helping me to become aware of my habits.

I started with tracking my baseline activity level: about 2,000 steps a day. Seeing this data forced me to rethink how much time I was spending on my rear end in front of a monitor staring at a dashboard.  I wasn’t only sedentary most of the day but I was even using her computer keyboard as a lunch tray.

I started off with modest step goals, and added steps incrementally each week, 1,000 at a time, all the while monitoring my progress on Fitbit dashboard.  It inspired to think about ways to get more steps in during day — take a walk at lunchtime  – and wow add another 2,00 steps.

Each week, I kept upping my  goal by just 1,000 steps until I got to 10,000 and beyond.   Not only was I able to drop weight and improve my health biometrics like blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, but I discovered that walking helped me manage stress and improve my ability to think clearly.  I also found walking was a great time to reflect on what the data means – a brief walk does wonders for improving your pattern analysis.

Recent studies show that it is important not to sit for prolonged periods of time because this is linked to higher incidences of diseases.    Therefore it is important to move for a few minutes each hour during the day.  My tracker now comes with a feature that will notify me every time I need to do those 250 steps.  I have this notification not to be a distraction but as a useful reboot of my brain to refocus my concentration – and I am avoiding potential health problems.

It is easy to become happy and healthy data nerd, and it is well worth it.   Identify a goal, track your progress, and reflect on how to improve your results.

5 Responses

  1. Lorna says:

    Hi Beth
    Thanks for sharing, I’ve also found that having a Fitbit has changed how I think about sleep and preparing for bedtime, it really does make a difference. It’s also got me walking more, for example instead of waiting 5 minutes for a bus I walk to the next bus stop along, those steps soon add up!
    Given it’s you that has written about this, I made a connection to working for a non-profit and started wondering about challenges we could set to encourage each other to be healthy using tools like Fitbits. I didn’t think I would, but I have found the weekend and week challenges with other people on Fitbit very motivating.
    Thus far I haven’t used the notifications to move for a few minutes each hour, I think I’ll start experimenting with that today, thanks 🙂

  2. Adam says:

    I’m also heading down this path as I got a Vivofit for Christmas, similar to the fitbit. I’ve been tracking calories with myfitnesspal. Can you suggest a good app for tracking sleep?

  3. Beth says:

    Hi Adam,

    I use a Fitbit which does track your sleep and that’s the one I’ve used. However, here is a list of other trackers that do the job as well, although I have not personally used all of them.
    http://www.wareable.com/withings/best-sleep-trackers-and-monitors

  4. Beth says:

    Hi Lorna,

    If you are using the Fitbit Charger, you will love the notifications to make you move 250 steps every hour. At first, it may seem like they a distraction, but it actually helps you keep your energy. Let me know how you do!

  5. Hi Beth, massive congrats on your health journey! Although I don’t use fitness trackers I’m a huge believer in everyone taking the path that works best for them, and sharing their story for others to learn.

    I love the details on the experiments you used to change your end of day and morning habits. Changes that stick are the ones we integrate into normal, every day practice.

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